by Bill Knowles
WALSENBURG- The city’s budget woes continue, and the measures taken to alleviate the pressure have reduced the city workforce. Twelve city employees, including two police officers, along with the former police chief, have been laid off in the last half year. As a result, anger has risen focused on the city’s administration.
Apparently, previous administrations were inexperienced and did not set the budget according to historical reality. When Alan Hein began as City Administrator, he worked on restoring the city’s budget to a reality-based modified accrual system, something that former administrations had failed to do. This failure contributed in part to the current budget crisis. The current situation highlights the necessity of having at least one professional on the city’s staff experienced in the establishing realistic budgets.
“Budgets must be set according to a historical reality,” Mr. Hein said in a finance committee meeting during the budgeting process at the first of the year. “We look at what has happened in the past and average that out and then we begin to see what the new budget may look like. This old idea of setting next year’s budget higher then the previous year, just because, isn’t going to wash. It’ll catch up with you.”
The failure of previous administrations to properly set the budget by using the modified accrual method has exacerbated the city’s current budget problems. Of course, another factor is the national financial crisis which is affecting every budget large and small as jobs disappear and new ones fail to materialize.
The current tensions over budget, the recent layoffs, and the ensuing anger of former and current city employees are starting to take a toll on the city’s administrative staff.
In a surprise move, the city’s finance director Krystel Vigil tendered her resignation last week stating that she would vacate her office at City Hall after the firm of Watkins and Schommer, Inc. has completed an audit of the city’s books.
Withholding comment on Vigil’s resignation, Hein indicated that a buy out of his contract by the city is on the table as well. The move toward a buy out was confirmed by Mayor Bruce Quintana in an interview last week, “I approached Hein asking him how he felt about the city buying out his contract. He seemed to be receptive to the idea,” Quintana said.
However in the city council meeting on Tuesday, June 15, the council didn’t act on the buy out. The cost of buying out the remainder of Hein’s contract hasn’t been disclosed and the city may not have all the funds available to take the action just yet.
In discussing the consequences of the resignation of the city’s finance director, city council members in the June 15 meeting began looking at who might be able to issue checks for the city in order to deal with day-to-day business. The criteria given was that the person selected worked for the city and would be in the city building during business hours.
The council decided to wait until the completion of an audit the city has been undergoing before selecting someone. When the audit is complete and the report is delivered to the city on July 16, the council will then know the balances in the city’s fund accounts and where the books stand on revenues and expenditures. The city council is watching the city’s expenditures very closely, questioning anything that might be a cause for concern and looking at even the smallest expenditure in order to keep the budget balanced.
The layoffs and departmental consolidations enacted by the City Administrator at the start of the year were measures taken to balance the city’s 2010 budget. However, these actions were the most difficult for city employees to swallow. The anger that followed the loss of jobs also motivated a group of citizens to start calling for the ousting of Hein. The Committee for a Better Walsenburg, or CFBWB, is composed of former and current city employees along with former city council members and local business owners.
The CFBWB’s call to drop Hein was played out at council meetings and a town hall meeting and was framed in the form of criticism of the City Administrator’s competence. Mayor Quintana had given the CFBWB the promise of no retaliation from the city as a result of saying what they thought in public.
The group feels that the city’s workers have been ignored by the administration. And that has generated hard feelings causing a breakdown in communication. “This is a core problem, this breakdown in communication,” Larry King from CFBWB said. “And as we went into the layoffs we felt that they cut the work force too tight, making for an unsafe work environment.”
In a letter to the city council, the CFBWB also questioned the wisdom of creating the Assistant Administrator’s job when no such position had existed in the past and a need for an assistant administrator was not apparent to the group. The position was not created by Hein but by Lew Quigley, the interim City Administrator between Eric Pierson and Hein.
The CFBWB hopes to see jobs created that will attract a younger workforce such as graduates of the area high schools who will stay in Walsenburg and young educated workers from outside the area who will move to the city. “We have brought these issues up before the city council at regular meetings and at the Town Hall Meeting,” King said.
The measures the city has taken to stabilize its budget have released a latent anger in some of the city’s workforce that is being directed toward the current city administration. And that anger has also politicized the workings of the city council driving a wedge between some of its members.
As Walsenburg struggles to deal the current budget, it is also finding itself poised to participate in the development of renewable energy in southern Colorado. But the lethargy that comes about as a result of political infighting could cripple the city’s ability to present a business-ready face to companies who want to develop the resources of wind and natural gas that are so abundant in and around the city.
The blood letting at city hall comes at a time when the proposed waste water treatment facility and the proposed sewer line project for the Northlands has received approval from the state engineer.
“The cost of the complete project is set at $5.2 million. That’s the set price and we should be able to get started on the project in about 60 days,” Hein said during a phone interview with the Huerfano World Journal. During the past 14 months Hein has been able to pull together the WWTF, which was mandated by the state 10 years ago. Failure to keep moving ahead on the project could result in a fine of up to $10,000 a day against Walsenburg by the state.